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CIOs make project management skills a priority

Long neglected in favor of technology know-how, formal project management skills are suddenly in demand.

Darrel Raynor remembers his first project management assignment. Then a programmer, he remembers being told, "Congratulations, you're a project manager and, by the way, we're behind on that project, so get going."

"It made me just want to go into my office and lock the door," he said. "I wanted to lean on what I did best -- documentation, programming, coding -- and it didn't get me anywhere."

Raynor dove into the task in spite of his inexperience and today runs Data Analysis & Results Inc., a project management consultancy in Austin, Texas. But his history illustrates a common experience in information technology: Project management is a vital skill to the success of IT departments today, but too few people know how to do it right.

Project Management 101
John Rahiya, Novations Project Management senior vice president, provided these best practices:

Manage the schedule: Start with an end date. Then establish major milestone dates.Communicate the schedule to all the team managers.

Manage the cost: Establish a budget that includes resources, equipment, and staff. Capture ongoing costs; monitor and track adherence to the project budget.

Manage the risk: Identify risks that are likely to interfere with deadlines or cost. Assign a probability of it occurring and decide on a response.

Manage the quality: Make sure that a finished product meets customer requirements and specifications. Constantly review both business and technical requirements for quality control purposes.

"Historically, I don't think IT professionals and leaders have had the same regard and respect for project management as a unique IT discipline as they do for technical positions such as database administrators and programmers," said John Kenagy, the CIO at Oregon Health & Science University, a medical college with a teaching hospital based in Portland, Ore. "The thought has traditionally been, 'We're all working on projects, so everybody should have project management skills.'"

While that may have worked in the past, CIOs are finding that, now more than ever, they need more qualified professionals on their team with top-notch project management skills.

"The IT world is getting far more complex -- there are more dependencies internally and raised expectations on the user side," said Deirdre Woods, associate dean and CIO at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She points to her department's window of opportunity for completing large projects, which has shrunk from three months in the summer to about four weeks. "We have to be faster, more agile and more organized to make it happen," she said.

Moreover, as technology becomes ever more intertwined with the business processes that drive a company, IT projects have become more of a multifunctional team effort. Global economies have produced projects that run 24/7, and IT departments must also juggle projects that overlap in terms of human resources and equipment.

"Companies frequently have multiple concurrent projects to deal with," points out John Rahiya, senior vice president at Novations Project Management, a project management consultancy in Atlanta. "In addition, projects can go round the clock with people doing something all the time all over the world. Maintaining control becomes a big challenge."

To succeed in such a complex environment, IT projects increasingly require a project manager's communication and teamwork skills to bring in a project on time and on budget -- or save a project that's in the suds. Kenagy, for example, tells the story of a troubled patient billing system project at OHSU. "It was a nightmare, just bleeding time and scope and schedule. The lifecycle of the project was probably 18 months and about a year into it; there was no way we were going to finish in another six months."

Kenagy dropped an experienced project manager onto the team, and the change was remarkable. "She sat down and broke the project down item by item, and removed everything not absolutely necessary for phase one," he said. "Through initiative, knowledge and perseverance, she turned that project around, closing it out seven months later."

There are several factors to consider when it comes to project management, from certification to what skills to look for. Here are some common questions about project management that help CIOs build a successful project management team.

How do I initiate project management?

While the basic methodologies and practices of project management are fairly standard, project management styles can vary widely by company. The key is to tailor the style to fit the business.

Kenagy, for example, established a project management office within his IT group in 2001, as a response to the staggering backlog of projects that had piled up behind the bottleneck of Y2K work. He has a project management officer (PMO) who is responsible for developing standards, technologies and tools for project management within IT, as well as training people to use them. He also has five permanent full-time project managers scattered across his 325-person IT group, and these folks follow the standard practices developed by the PMO. Moreover, most of his fulltime project managers carry the Project Manager Profession certification from the Project Management Institute.

Woods, on the other hand, tends to prefer a more flexible style more suited to her smaller group, inculcating project manager skills at a certain level. "I have an eight-person director team that has large scope project management activity, but I don't have anybody with project management certification," she said. She said she prefers a more flexible style than that engendered by formal and linear project management frameworks.

What skills should project managers have?

Raynor conducted an informal survey of about 25 CIOs several years ago, polling them on the most important skills a project manager should have.

"I thought technical expertise would be first, and it was third. I thought that good communication skills would be way down the list, and it was second," he said. The No. 1 thing that CIOs wanted from a project manager, however, boiled down to his ability to get the job done. "They have to do what they say they are going to do," Raynor said.

Project management skills, in many ways, are drawn more from business-side skills than technical experience. Experts and CIOs alike cited good negotiation and communication skills as paramount, as well as the ability to make the tough calls when necessary. "If there's going to be a bad outcome, make that call to pull the plug," Woods said. "You also have to have good relationships with vendors and know how to work those relationships."

Kenagy considers effective upfront planning the most important project management skill to have. "In doing projects, IT people want to dive right in and get their hands on the keyboard," he said. "Project management people come in and ask questions first to establish a baseline plan. What that does is create a more predictable IT environment."

Finally, project managers must know how to set the vision and get people to effectively work as a team. "They have accountability for the project but authority over no one," Kenagy said. "It's almost more a cheerleading aspect."

How important is Project Management Certification?

While having an official project management certification is helpful, it's not required. Woods looks for people who already have successful projects under their belt rather than a PMP designation. "I think we look for results -- a good project outcome is better than formal project management skills," she said.

Kenagy, too, looks for experience, but he also like to see evidence of project management certification. "It's like the good housekeeping seal of approval," he said. "They don't have to have it, but if there are two people of equal status and one has certification, it would tilt the balance in their favor."

Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer based out of Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at

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